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Alka Zadgaonkar wrings plastic waste for profit[continued]

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Planning disruption:

That is so simplistic that many technologists will react stating the many problems in the way. Alka was lucky she was sounding Umesh. He's a positive person who believes anything is possible. Ten years ago, when their son Akshay was just 8 and home computers were intimidating, expensive objects, everyone shooed the boy away from it. Not Umesh. That encouragement led Akshay to become at 12, the world's youngest Microsoft Certified Software Developer [MCSD]. The Zadgaonkar family was sent tickets to Seattle for a private meeting with Bill Gates. [Akshay, yet to finish college is interning with Microsoft at Hyderabad.]

So Umesh understands dreamers. He urged Alka to explore her idea. "He believed in me and kept saying it was only a matter of time and labour," she says. Young Sunil Raisoni, who runs the Raisoni College where Alka teaches was another man who encouraged her. She got space and permission to set up a lab in the college. Zadgaonkars sold an apartment they had and set aside Rs. 1 Lakh for equipment.

From the beginning Alka was clear that any process she develops should be able to handle any manner of plastics, with little cleaning or preparation. She was setting herself a harder target in a territory without maps. Her idea was to get a plasticised pool of waste to react with her proprietory catalysts to create hydrocarbon fumes that can be condensed.

She set up her experiment at Raisoni college and began trying various catalyst recipes. "I began with an awareness that it'd be a long series of exploration," she says. But she was not prepared for the length of that series. The temperature and pressure [-atmospheric] parameters were pretty much standardised; the only experimentation was with various catalysts. And yet, there was no sign of promise.

Then came Carver:

Three years into her experiments and with nothing to show, Alka was close to giving up. She began to doubt her ability. Umesh sensed the mood and brought home a Marathi book for her to read. It was 'Ek Hota Carver', a biography of George Washington Carver, the great black American inventor and idealist. Alka says,"That book shamed me. Here was a man who was black, denied parental love and racially discriminated. Yet he pursued knowledge that may benefit all and left his wealth for common good."

Carver carried her over the last mile. She resumed her experiments with a new vigour. Then came the day, Dec 13, 1999. She had set up that morning's trial catalyst and was in a classroom teaching. A maintenance staff came rushing at 11 am and said cooking gas was leaking from her lab.

"I knew at once that I had my winning catalyst. If there was gas, there would be a distillate too," she recalls. And there it was, a few milli litres of liquid petroleum recovered from plastic film waste. She sat down for a few moments to take it all in. And then she called Umesh.

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